Fostering Engagement and a Feeling of Community in your Online Course

Distance learning courses conducted through online platforms such as UTC Learn can be an extremely valuable asset to universities looking to expand their student reach. Online learning allows students to complete courses from any location and use technology sometimes not available in a traditional classroom setting. However, advantages of distance learning courses do come at a cost.

One of the greatest disadvantages is a lack of student engagement and feeling of community. Courses held in an exclusively online environment may foster a sense of anonymity and lead to student withdrawal and minimal participation. The “type” of student enrolled in a distance-learning course may play a factor as well: some students might enroll in these courses because course participation is more flexible and they believe it will require less work than a face-to-face course. Thus, disengagement may be a threat from the very beginning.

There are many ways that instructors can combat this disengagement and create a collaborative, cooperative learning community. First and foremost, course design plays a large role. Use the “Teaching Styles” function in UTC Learn to create a welcoming course environment in not only appearance, but course navigation as well. There are many options to choose from, but keep in mind your course should be easy to read and accessible. Engaging courses are easy to navigate, have a variety of assessments, and integrate multiple forms of media such as pictures, documents, and videos.

Possibly one of the biggest factors in engagement is communication, both student-to-student and instructor-to-student. Research shows a strong correlation between using multiple channels of communication and higher engagement (Crumpacker, 2001). UTC Learn offers a variety of tools to foster interaction within a course. Some tools to keep in mind include:

  • Journals
  • Wikis
  • Discussion Boards
  • Blogs
  • Announcements
  • Creation of Groups
  • Assessments
  • Email

Though using these tools through UTC Learn is a great place to start, they are only as good as the work that has been put into them. Instructors can make the most of the tools by leading discussions, asking open-ended questions, providing guidance and feedback, and setting clear expectations of performance. The goal should be to facilitate self-efficacy among students and encourage enthusiasm for the course.



Online Teaching Strategies for Engagement (Blackboard):


Crumpacker (2001) Faculty pedagogical approach, skill, and motivation in today’s distance education milieu. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration 4:4.

Ideas for Faculty: Making the Most of your Summer!

By the time Spring semester ends, most faculty are ready for a short break. Whether you teach in Summer or not, just having a lighter load can make all the difference and allow you to time to recharge.

One of the best ways to fight that burned out feeling, is to set aside a little time to learn something new. That way, when you go back to your classes, you will have expanded your own repertoire of skills and feel good about your personal professional development. I have a few ideas to get you started.

  1. Create a Blog: Maybe you have a favorite blog that you read regularly, but you have never created one of your own. There’s a great little Edublog challenge online that is just for teachers and will help you get started in an easy and non-threatening format. If you don’t want to use their service, you could also just read the ‘assignments’ and do them in your Sandbox that you have access to within our UTC Learn system. That way you can practice in a closed area that no one else sees, but you have full functionality. If you need help, you can send me an email and I will go into the Sandbox with you and create some responses to your posts to help you along. The blog’s style is one of Author’s Post and Comments. Try it out for a few weeks and see what you think!

Read the blog challenge online here:


2.Participate in a Webinar: We have access to many Magna Publication professional development webinars, and are happy to facilitate you and/or your small group in creating an informal event. Do you and  2-3 of your colleagues eat lunch together and ‘talk shop’? This would be just like that but taking it a step further, with materials to make the learning interesting and fun. Let us know if you are interested in this idea by emailing us at and requesting a Magna webinar. Some of our topics available now include:

How Can I Capture Students’ Interest in the First 5 Minutes?

10 Ways to Improve Blended Learning Course Design

Seven Strategies to Enhance Learning through Group Work

How Can I Structure a Flipped Lesson?

Academically Adrift: Findings & Lessons for Improvement ( This is about Relating your Research to UG Education)


3.Finally, maybe you’re interested in reading a great book that will connect you to students for the Fall. One of our campus programs is called “Read2Achieve” and the current book is “The Circle” by Dave Eggers. Just learning a little about the book and its author will help you feel more a part of UTC once students come back and are talking about it! To learn more, view the webpage, and let us know if you have questions:

Hope you have a great and restful summer! If we can assist you with your recharging plans, just let us know by email or phone: or (423) 425-4188!


Team-Based Learning

Over the past year and a half, we’ve hosted two campus workshops on team-based learning, also called TBL.  Bill Roberson of the University at Albany does a great job on getting your buy-in on the method, and many folks, including one entire department, have implemented it extensively at UTC.  TBL is much more than “group work”; it is a strategy on which you plan your entire course.  There are four essential components of TBL:  formation of permanent student groups, student accountability, instructor feedback, and assignment design.  To be able to use this approach, your course content needs to be chunked, that is, formed into 5 to 6 modules that take a few class sessions to work through.

For each module in a course, the instructor takes the students through the three TBL phases.  The first phase involves giving individual study assignments such as a readings or online lectures that students do before class (sound familiar – flipped classroom?).  The second phase starts with students coming to class and taking an individual quiz, which is called an Individual Readiness Assurance Test or I-RAT, and turning it into the instructor.  Without knowing how they did on the quiz, they then take a group quiz (Group Readiness Assurance Test or G-RAT) which is the same quiz they took as an individual. During the G-RAT, students hold each other accountability for having completed the pre-work (this may not happen immediately, but will in time).  Once the correct answers are made known, teams can appeal quiz questions if they feel they were worded poorly or have more than one correct answer, for example.  Appeals must be submitted in writing and are signed off by the entire team.  Next, the G-RATs are turned in and the instructor quickly reviews them to see what students need to know more about.  What are the groups missing – what are the gaps in their knowledge or understanding?  This process leads to a mini-lecture only on that material that is needed by students.  Whew, that’s the end of phase 2.

Now phase 3 is the application of the course material through team-based application exercises.  This involves exercises that take 30 minutes or up to a couple of class sessions.  Much like the flipped classroom approach, students become engaged in the content by applying their knowledge.   Ideally, these exercises involve student groups all working on the same problem and reporting simultaneously in class – this gets their competitive juices flowing.  Once the applications are completed, then it’s back to phase one with the next module!

Want to know more about team-based learning?  Contact us for a individual session or check out our spring seminar schedule.

Additional Resources

Team-Based Learning Collaborative.  (2013).  Getting started.  Retrieved from

Florida State University.  (n.d.).  Team-based learning.  Retrieved from


Faculty embrace experiential learning and critical reflection in a general education science course

Brad Reynolds and Tom Wilson received a Beyond the Classroom ThinkAchieve grant to fund an experiential learning activity in a general education non-laboratory science course.  During fall 2012, students in Bio/ESC 1100 (Conservation of Biodiversity) were given the option to participate in a hands-on field experience and reflection activity in lieu of taking the final exam in the course.  Instead of just listening to a professor talk about conservation, these student volunteers actually practiced conservation and contributed to a real-life conservation-based research project.  The conservation project, still ongoing, seeks to monitor the impact of upland deforestation on local amphibian populations.

Professor Reynolds and a student recording data The instructors, Brad Reynolds and Tom Wilson, took the student volunteers to a local wetland where the students helped sample and process frogs and salamanders.  Once in the field, students checked pitfall traps for animals and learned how to properly identify, sex, and measure the frogs and salamanders they discovered.  They were likewise taught how to properly record scientific data, before releasing the animals into the wild.

Critical thinking was fostered in the student volunteers through active, experiential learning and critical reflection.  Students were expected to keep reflective journals before, during, and after the experience as a means of documenting the transformation that had taken place within them.  These journals also served as a vehicle through which critical thinking and the challenging of preconceived assumptions was encouraged.  According to Brad Reynolds, “We challenged the students to actively combat the biodiversity crisis by participating in a real-world conservation-based amphibian monitoring project. The end result was that the students developed a greater respect for reptiles and amphibians, and at the same time, had their overall conservation ethics impacted in a positive way through experiential learning and reflection.”


Brad Reynolds is a faculty member in the Biological and Environmental Sciences.  In addition to the Conservation of Biodiversity course, he teaches Introduction to Environmental Science I and II.

Thomas Wilson is also a faculty member in the Biological and Environmental Sciences. He teaches Herpetology, Ecology and Amphibian Conservation.



The Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education

The Seven Principles

By: Dawn M. Ford

It was in 1987 when Chickering and Gamson wrote about the seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education.  Years later, those principles still hold up, so it’s good to review them every now and again to keep us fresh.

seven principles

Principle one is that contact between students and faculty should be encouraged.  It’s important that students know that faculty care about them.  How can that be encouraged?  We can provide multiple ways in which students can reach us – email, phone, office hours – and of course, we should be responsive.  We can arrive to class early and stay late to encourage interaction with our students.  Principle two is that reciprocity and cooperation among students should be cultivated.  Deep and meaningful learning happens when students work as teams.  Otherwise, what’s the point of all of them being in the same room at the same time?  See my blog about team-based learning to learn more about using the team approach for student learning.  Principle three – encourage active learning.  I always remember the saying that learning is not a spectator sport.  From day one, engage students in course content through writing, discussion, application, etc.  They learn more by doing.  Principle four is to give prompt feedback.  I’m reminded of faculty who talk about students who do poorly on an end-of-semester research paper.  When I ask them what writing assignments came before the research paper, usually there were none.  We need to give students the opportunity to practice skills that we want them to develop and give them prompt feedback so they can improve over the course the semester.  Okay, principle five is time on task, which is related to principle four.  Time management for students can be challenging, and we can help them by giving and adhering to deadlines and modeling good time management skills ourselves.  Principle six is to communicate high expectations.   Expect more, and we will get it, expect less, and we will get that too!  Set expectations on the first day of class, it’s a good way to create a community of learning.  Principle seven…respect diverse talents and ways of learning.  I think we realize that students are different.  We can teach two sections of the same course back-to-back and the class sessions will go completely different.  We need to be flexible and adjust our teaching to accommodate students so that we accomplish what we set out to do.

Additional Resources

UF Center for Instructional Technology and Training.  (2012).  Chickering and Gamson 4 rules for undergraduate education.  Retrieved from

UNC Charlotte Center for Teaching and Learning.  (2013).  Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education.  Retrieved from



Create a Community of Learning on the First Day of Class

It’s almost that time again – the first day of class.   I have sometimes struggled with what to do the first day; do I dive right in or just cover the syllabus and let the students go?  The literature tells us that the first day of class is important, if not critical, to the success of a course and the students.  The first day sets the tone because students form their opinion about the instructor and the course in the first few minutes. So what are the best practices for the first day?

first day of class

To create a community of learning from the start, make the students feel welcome, set clear expectations for the students, discuss the goals and student learning outcomes of the course, and engage the students in content.  Okay, let’s talk about tips for each of these.  To welcome students, get to the classroom early and greet students as they arrive. Start class on time (this conveys that punctuality and class time are important) and introduce yourself.  Next, talk to the students about your expectations and details about the course.  Students need to understand the goals of the course, what they will learn,  how they will learn it, and how they will be assessed. They also need to know about your attendance policy, late work policy, and behavior expectations (cell phones off?).  Sometime during that first class meeting, engage the students in an activity or two. Engaging students right away delivers the message that they will be involved in the course, not just spectators.

What are your first day of class best practices?  Feel free to share them!


Additional Resources

University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  (2013).  The first day of class.  Retrieved from

Weimer, M.  (2013).  First day of class activities that create a climate for learning.  Retrieved from